When it was published in 1985, Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple was a groundbreaker — illuminating places that had been in shadow and, like most groundbreakers, intensely controversial. It described the plight of many poor, black rural women through the unforgettable voice of the protagonist, Celie, a voice that mixed innocence with world-weariness and showed a growing eventual wisdom. Celie's father had forced her to bear two of his children and had then given them away; he'd traded the teenager herself to a violently abusive man called Mister in exchange for a cow. Through a series of encounters, particularly with a hedonistic stripper named Shug, Celie found her own voice and her own strength. For feminists, Walker's novel was a revelation. But in some parts of the African-American community, it was considered a betrayal, and Walker was excoriated for having undermined black men in the midst of the struggle for equality.
This tough-minded book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, was sentimentalized by Steven Spielberg in a movie. A musical version, The Color Purple: The Musical About Love, written by Marsha Norman, is no more faithful to the tone of the novel — and far too faithful to the plot. Celie suffers and suffers patiently through a very long first act. Other lives unfold around her; people marry, separate, gossip, argue. Her beloved sister sends letters from Africa, and Mister hides them. Practically every moment in the book is wedged in here, but nothing feels urgent, focused or necessary; there's a sporadic quality to the events. By the second act, Celie has matured and found independence through an affair with Shug (barely explored and represented only by one of those cliche kiss-and-fade-out scenes) and the discovery that she has a talent for sewing pants, which leads to a thriving business. Mister has unconvincingly repented and is doing one good deed after another. And her long-lost sister has returned from Africa, bringing along her long-lost original babies.
A discursive this-then-this-then-this-other-thing storytelling method may work in a novel, but it makes for a limp evening of theater. To top things off, with a couple of exceptions — Celie and Shug's tender "What About Love?"; a slithery duet by husband and wife Harpo and Sofia called "Is There Anything I Can Do for You?"; and Sofia's defiant "Hell No!" — most of the songs, by Brenda Russell, Alee Willis and Stephen Bray, are utterly forgettable. Even so, director donnie betts has given the musical a warm, appealing production, with lots of singing talent and charm on display. SuCh, a soul singer new to Denver theater, plays Celie with warmth and a charming diffidence. Anna High knocks it out of the park as Sofia, the woman who simply refuses to accept her place at the bottom of the hierarchy and keeps her husband both loving and in line. De Thomas is a powerful figure as Mister. And as the sassy Church Ladies who serve as a chorus, Jada Roberts, Kim Dawson and Cicely O'Kain brighten the stage with every number. It's a shame so many of the songs confine the cast's excellent voices to an unpleasantly low register.
Watching The Color Purple, I couldn't help remembering the way Rene Marie tackled somewhat similar material in her one-woman show Slut Energy Theory, a piece that was also directed by betts and also portrayed the life of a woman who'd been horribly raped and abused as a child. There was determination, humor, rage, an absolute lack of self-pity and an unquenchable thirst for life in both Marie's performance and the songs she'd composed. But there's no room for passion or raw honesty in The Color Purple, and the result is a lot of first-rate talent going to waste.